Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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1971 May 5 We
Margaret Thatcher

Speech to Electrical Association for Women

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: Speech
Venue: Connaught Rooms, central London
Source: Thatcher Archive: DES press release
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: Embargoed until 1330 5 May 1971.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 1087
Themes: Education, Secondary education, Higher & further education, Employment, Women


A call to parents, teachers and employers to encourage a greater use of the talent and potential of girls was made by the Education Secretary, Mrs Margaret Thatcher today (5 May). Addressing the annual conference of the Electrical Association for Women, in London, Mrs Thatcher said:

“I am often pressed to single out the subject of education for girls and women, their needs and opportunities, to be pursued as a special line of policy. This I resist. It would be too narrow an interpretation of my responsibilities, which are for educational opportunities for all, regardless of sex. I am not entirely convinced that it is always in the interests of girls and women to press our interests so exclusively that the sense of being different and special is reinforced in peoples' minds, possibly creating unconscious resistance, when what we really want to emphasise is the equality of ability and talent, justifying equality of opportunity.

“Having said that, I feel at least on this occasion I can afford to speak a little about the particular education interests of girls and women and about some of the disparities in the educational experience of the two sexes. There is a continuing need strongly to encourage girls and women to go on with their education both formally and informally, and to seek to develop and use their abilities to the full.

“When we look at education beyond the compulsory school age, we find that rather more boys tend to stay on than girls. Let me pick out some main features from age 15 through school, further and higher education. In 1969, of the 16 year olds, 33 per cent of the girls were in school compared with 35 per cent of the boys. At 18, there were 5 per cent of the girls in schools compared with 7 per cent of the boys.

“What happens when they leave school at ‘A’ level? In 1969 for every 10 boys with three or more ‘A’ level passes entering university, there were 5 girls; for every 10 boys with two ‘A’ levels going to university, only 4 girls. Among under-graduates in British universities in 1969, again for every 10 men there were only [end p1] 4 women. On full-time and sandwich advanced courses in further education, including those at the polytechnics, in 1969 the ratio of men to women was 10 to 3.

“Clearly a great many more girls could benefit from continuing their education beyond the compulsory school age. This is especially true when we look at day-release. In 1969 only about 10 per cent of girls aged 15 to 17 in employment were getting day or block release compared with almost 40 per cent of the boys. Clearly, girls need more encouragement and more incentives to take up those opportunities for day release that exist, limited though they may be; and I know that some young women feel that it is more adult, in some way, to get away from education. But I think this is a very short-sighted view both for employers and for young women. I believe the whole trend in employment will be towards greater opportunities for women to return to work when their families no longer need quite so much attention. And there is no doubt that those opportunities will be greater, the better educated you are, and the more you have been able to keep in touch during the intervening years.

“I have said a good deal about the percentage differences but there are also, as you well know, even more marked differences in the subjects which boys and girls pursue in school and beyond, and in their career expectations.

“More than one survey in this country of the attitudes of secondary pupils to scientific and technical careers has brought out the point that although girls show normal ability for mathematics and science, they, their parents and their teachers all tend to consider that scientific subjects are unimportant to girls and subjects on the arts side are considered more appropriate. Time and again we see that the thinking by girls, and about girls, tends to direct vocational choice along well-worn paths of traditional female occupations. This pattern is well confirmed in the relative numbers of boys and girls studying mathematics and scientific subjects in schools, and scientific and engineering subjects in higher education.

“But there are also signs that girls do not set their sights as high as boys on comparable abilities. A recent study by Donald Hutchings and Judith Clowsley of 18 year old school sixth-formers indicates that, while the girls were if anything more enthusiastic about their academic work than boys and were at least “level-pegging” with the boys in achievements and aspirations, when it came to the question of what they actually expected to attain there were marked indications that the girls were lowering their sights. The girls appeared to be just as ambitious and idealistic, and in answering questions concerned with “being powerful” , “being famous” , “making discoveries” and “being rich” their attitudes were indistinguishable from those of the boys. But their replies were markedly different to questions dealing with what they actually expected to attain— “£5,000 a year” , “to be well known” , and “to have authority” . [end p2]

“Of course the factors in these differences are extremely complex. Choice and decision by young people is a process that takes place over a period of time, and there are many influences here, their own attitude, the attitudes and advice of their parents, teachers and friends, the immediate opportunities open to them in education or employment, and the less tangible but probably no less influential attitudes which prevail generally in our society.

“It would be naive to suggest that there was any short or simple solution to the problem of making fuller and better use of the talent and potential of girls and women in this country. While many feel that this is still one of our major remaining additional sources of talent, no-one would pretend that it can be developed other than by continuing and considerable effort in many directions.

“In education, the opportunities for girls as for boys have been growing, and will continue to grow. The raising of the school leaving age will be a further major step and the possibilities for staying on at school or proceeding to further education beyond the compulsory age are there to be pursued at all levels of ability. But there must be continuing and positive encouragement at every stage and it is precisely because this encouragement needs to come from every direction—parents, teachers, employers, those of you from industry, voluntary women's organisations and other bodies that I have made this my theme today; and that I find such particular satisfaction in commending your work.”